11 for 2011: Best reads of the year

2011 is coming to a close. It’s time to pause and reflect on the year that is ending.

There’s a lovely quote from Garrison Keillor, “A book is a present that you can open again and again.” There’s a corollary in this house about “not if the cat is sitting on it” but the principle still applies. The good stories from this year will still be good next year. Some of them may even have sequels!

These were my favorites of the year. At least when I narrow the list down to 11 and only 11. And even then I fudged a bit. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (reviewed 12/1/11). This book had everything it could possibly need. There’s a quest. There’s a love story. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s an homage to videogaming. There are pop-culture references to every cult classic of science fiction and fantasy literature imaginable. There’s an evil empire to be conquered. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Omnitopia: Dawn by Diane Duane (reviewed 4/22/11). On the surface, Omnitopia and Ready Player One have a lot in common. Thankfully, there is more than meets the eye. Omnitopia takes place in the here and now, or very close to it. The world has not yet gone down the dystopian road that Wade and his friends are looking back at in Ready Player One. On the other hand, any resemblance the reader might see between Worlds of Warcraft mixed with Facebook and Omnitopia, or between Omnitopia Corp and Apple, may not entirely be the reader’s imagination. Howsomever, Omnitopia Dawn also has some very neat things to say about artificial intelligence in science fiction. If you liked Ready Player One, just read Omnitopia: Dawn. Now!

The Iron Knight (reviewed 10/26/11) was the book that Julie Kagawa did not intend to write. She was done with Meghan, her story was over. Meghan is the Iron Queen, but what she has achieved is not a traditional happily-ever-after. Victory came at a price. Real victories always do. Meghan’s acceptance of her responsibility means that she must rule alone. Ash is a Winter Prince, and Meghan’s Iron Realm is fatal to his kind. The Iron Knight is Ash’s journey to become human, or at least to obtain a soul, so that he can join his love in her Iron Realm. It is an amazing journey of mythic proportions.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (reviewed 10/18/11) is a story that absolutely shouldn’t work. The fact that it not only works, but works incredibly well, still leaves me gasping in delight. Dearly, Departed is the first, best, and so far only YA post-apocalypse steampunk zombie romance I’ve ever read. I never thought a zombie romance could possible work, period. This one not only works, it’s fun. There’s a sequel coming, Dearly, Beloved. I just wish I knew when.

Debris by Jo Anderton (reviewed 09/29/11) is the first book of The Veiled World Trilogy. It’s also Anderton’s first novel, a fact that absolutely amazed me when I read the book. Debris is science fiction with a fantasy “feel” to it, a book where things that are scientifically based seem magical to most of the population. But the story is about one woman’s fall from grace, and her discovery that her new place in society is where she was meant to be all along.

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (reviewed 09/19/11). If you love mysteries, and you are not familiar with Louise Penny’s work, get thee to a bookstore, or download her first Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, Still Life, to your ereader this instant. Louise Penny has been nominated for (and frequently won) just about every mystery award for the books in this series since she started in 2005. Find out why.

I love Sherlock Holmes pastiches. (This is not a digression, I will reach the point). I have read all Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell books, some more than once. I almost listed Pirate King (reviewed 9/9/11), this year’s Holmes/Russell book instead of Trick. But Pirate King was froth, and Penny never is. A regular contributor to Letters of Mary, the mailing list for fans of the Holmes/Russell books, recommended the Louise Penny books. I am forever grateful.

The Elantra Series by Michelle Sagara (review forthcoming). I confess I’m 2/3rds of the way through Cast in Ruin right now. I’ve tried describing this series, and the best I can come up with is an urban fantasy series set in a high fantasy world. I absolutely love it. It’s the characters that make this series. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is clearly drawn and their personality is delineated in a way that makes them interesting. There are people you wouldn’t want to meet, but they definitely are distinctive. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in spots, even when it’s very much gallows humor. I’m driving my husband crazy because I keep laughing at the dialog, and I can’t explain what’s so funny. I would love to have drinks with Kaylin. I’d even buy. But the Elantra series is not humor. Like most urban fantasy, it’s very snarky. But the stories themselves have a crime, or now, a very big problem that needs solving, and Kaylin is at the center of it. Whether she wants to be or not.

If you are keeping score somewhere, or just want the reading order, it’s Cast in Moonlight (part of Harvest Moon), Cast in Shadow, Cast in Courtlight, Cast in Secret, Cast in Fury, Cast in Silence, Cast in Chaos, and Cast in Ruin.

The Ancient Blades Trilogy by David Chandler consists of Den of Thieves (reviewed 7/27/11), A Thief in the Night (reviewed 10/7/11) and Honor Among Thieves (reviewed 12/21/11). This was good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery. Which means the so-called hero is the thief and not the knight-errant. And every character you meet has a hidden agenda and that no one, absolutely no one, is any better than they ought to be. But the ending, oh the ending will absolutely leave you stunned.

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher (reviewed 7/29/11) is 2011’s entry in one of my absolute all time favorite series, The Dresden Files. And I saw Jim Butcher in person at one of the Atlanta Barnes & Noble stores. Ghost Story represents a very big change in the Dresden Files universe, where Harry Dresden starts growing into those extremely large boots he’s been stomping around in all these years. If you love urban fantasy, read Dresden.

Turn It Up by Inez Kelley (reviewed 8/10/11 and listed here) is one of the best takes on the “friends into lovers” trope that I have ever read. Period. Also, I’m an absolute sucker for smart people and witty dialogue, and this book is a gem. “Dr. Hot and the Honeypot” pretty much talk each other into a relationship, and into bed, while they give out sassy advice over the airwaves on their very suggestive and extremely successful sexual advice radio show.

My last book is a two-fer. Break Out (reviewed 8/4/11) and Deadly Pursuit (reviewed 12/6/11) by Nina Croft are the first two books in her Blood Hunter series, and I sincerely hope there are more. This is paranormal science fiction romance. Like Dearly, Departed, this concept should not work. But it absolutely does. And it gets better the longer it goes on. If you have an urban fantasy world in the 20th century, what would happen if that alternate history continued into space? Where do the vamps and the werewolves go? They go into space with everyone else, of course. And you end up with Ms. Croft’s Blood Hunter universe, which I loved. But you have to read both books. The first book just isn’t long enough for the world building. The second one rocks.

I stopped at 11 (well 11-ish) because this is the 2011 list. I could have gone on. And on. And on. My best ebook romances list was published on Library Journal earlier in the month. LJ has a ton of other “best” lists for your reading pleasure. Or for the detriment of your TBR pile.

How many best books?

In time for everyone’s holiday shopping, the best books of 2011 lists are popping up everywhere. This is in spite of the fact that 2011 still has two whole publishing months yet to go!

And maybe it’s me, but I kind of expect best books lists to be organized in lists of “top tens”. You know what I mean, the top ten books of the year, and then the top ten fiction, the top ten mysteries, top ten science fiction, top ten romance, etc., etc., etc.

Amazon’s Top 100 Editor’s Picks went up on the Amazon site on November 8, but they also picked the top 10 books in each genre, grouping, or what-have-you. Admittedly, Amazon’s purpose is to sell books, but somebody still had to sit down and think about which ten books to highlight, even in such esoteric categories as “Quirky & Strange”, which is where they slipped in Go the F**k to Sleep and Pat the Zombie.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as they’re talking about reading, and about giving people books, whether print books or ebooks, for holiday presents, it’s all good.

But, but, but, you’re wondering why I took a look at this? I’m not going to critique the selections. As long as people are reading, it’s all good. Amazon treated every genre and every reading taste equally. If I looked hard enough, I’m sure they forgot someone, but at least they tried.  And if someone wants to debate Amazon’s choices, that person is still talking about reading!

The Publishers Weekly 2011 best books list was released on November 4. The web app to view the list is very cool.  But this time, I am going to debate the contents of the list. It’s not so much what’s on it, but how many. There are only 9 mystery and thriller titles. Just 9.  This is not about whether those 9 are or are not awesome (I know one of them is definitely awesome) but shouldn’t this be a top ten list? Really?

PW lumps Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror into one big basket. One big and relatively empty basket. There are only six books mentioned, and all are from small publishers. While highlighting small publishers is terrific, it does make me wonder that none of the big SF or Fantasy titles were good enough to be on their best books list? Not Magician King or Wise-Man’s Fear or Embassytown? Or Ready Player One, which everyone has raved about. Even more interesting, the science fiction blogger named her four honorable mention titles; The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow, The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham, Dead Iron by Devon Monk. Why not just give SF/F/Horror a top ten list in the first place?

There are only 5 romance titles listed. This is something I find just plain impossible to believe. There weren’t 10 best romances? Why not? Where does paranormal fit into this mix, because there wasn’t a paranormal title among the five chosen. And Archangel’s Blade, Heart of Steel, and Dragon Bound show up on an awful lot of lists this year.

But it’s not about which particular titles I would personally choose or not choose. It’s about the fact that, even taken as a whole, none of the major fiction genres were considered worth 10 “best books” recommendations on a list with an seemingly elastic number of slots.

For the kids who read the recommended books like A Monster Calls and Legend and Daughter of Smoke and Bone, where are the similar numbers of fantastic genre recommendations for when they grow up?

A billion wicked thoughts about ebooks and libraries

On October 12 I attended the second annual virtual conference about ebooks and libraries, sponsored by Library Journal and School Library Journal. The title of the conference was Ebooks: the New Normal, and I wondered, is it really?

The conference itself was really cool. This is a conference about ebooks, after all. It should be a virtual conference. Requiring a physical conference to talk about a virtual product would be either ironic or contradictory. The sessions were great! At the same time, as one of the attendees pointed out on Twitter, it’s hard to sit down for drinks together afterwards to rehash the conference. Putting it another way, hash tags just don’t taste as good as a glass of wine with new friends after the conference is over.

But back to that thought about whether ebooks are the new normal, or not. Ebooks are definitely a permanent part of the library landscape. Ian Singer of Media Source quoted adoption rate statistics that ebooks are in over 90% of academic libraries and over 80% of public libraries. But “in” and “integrated” are two different things. A lot of academic library ebook collections are mostly for research. And a lot of public library ebook collections are just getting started.

What about those “billion wicked thoughts”? One of the speakers in the afternoon Pecha Kucha session was Ogi Ogas, author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire. His advice to libraries regarding ebooks is that we need to not just stock a lot of ebook romances, but that we need to get involved in archiving fanfiction. Wow! Why? Because men like pictures and women like stories, meaning romance fiction. His research follows the publishing trends, and the library ebook circulation trends, that romance sells, and romance circulates. Ebook romances of all stripes and types are the hottest circulating genre of ebooks, and romance authors are the hottest circulating authors except for the big name bestsellers like Patterson and Roberts. Except, hey wait a minute, Nora Roberts is a romance author.

Robin Bradford, Fiction Collection Development Specialist at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, said something similar in her earlier presentation. She said that purchasing for the ebook collection isn’t like buying for the print collection. She showed the top 20 ebooks from IMCPL, and there they were, hot romance authors in the top 20. Lauren Dane had 4 books in the top 20. (Go Lauren, she’s really good!) Robin’s point in general was that the ebook audience may be different from the print audience and we have to purchase what will circulate. Another one of her comments that was clearly a big takeaway based on the Twitter chat was that the ebook users want the authors’ backlist if it’s available. And it increasingly is thanks to publishers like Open Road Media.

But about that whole normal thing? One of the issues that’s part of the old normal, and an even bigger part of the new normal, is budget limitations. Ebooks may not take up any room, and genre fiction can be less expensive than hardcover books, but library budgets have shrunk. We can reallocate money from some other places, like periodicals, and standing orders, and reference books. But databases also cost more, and that expense isn’t going away.

Libraries do a lot of their collection development from reviews. Not for the upcoming bestsellers, the sure things, but authors and titles they don’t know and have never heard of, they do. When a library is looking at an ebook collection, as Robin Bradford and other speakers pointed out, the library shouldn’t be duplicating its print collection. There are a lot of titles from publishers such as Carina and Dreamspinner and Samhain that are ebook-only, and many are written by new or relatively unknown authors. In other words, if these were print, collection development would look for reviews. Even when the individual titles cost less than $5, the money does add up. There are reviews out there, if a librarian is willing to go hunting through the blogosphere, but that takes a lot of time. Or it’s a labor of love.  Library Journal has been reviewing ebook-only titles in their Xpress Reviews online since July 2011 (full disclosure: I am one of their reviewers), but libraries need more resources in order to integrate ebook ordering into collection development. We need the equivalent of AudioFile or VOYA for ebook only titles, except online, of course!  When that exists, ebooks will  truly be the new normal in libraries.

Who’s with me on this?

South Carolina Librarians Rock!

The South Carolina Collection Development Mini-Conference was an absolute blast! What an amazing event. Three days devoted to collection development, sponsored by the South Carolina State Library. There were 80 attendees every day, and folks were going home at night and letting their colleagues come in, so it wasn’t the same 80 people each day. One day was devoted to ebooks, one to adult collections, and one to kids and teens.

I was very fortunate to present for the adult collections and the teens on genre fiction. And, I was able to attend the day on kids and teens. Wow!

My presentation for the crowd on adult collection development was about genre fiction selection. “The Brave New World of Genre Fiction Selection, the Rap Sheet on the Fiction Vixen, or what the Locus are all these book blogs about?” It was a big title for a pretty big subject. I want to encourage collection development librarians to use book blogs as selection tools.

Why? The bloggers, including yours truly, cover more than just the traditional publishers. We cover a lot of ebook-only titles. Blogs may be the only review source for most ebook-only titles.

Blogs are as much, probably more, labors of love as they are anything else. Many are niche publications. If they cover a subgenre such as steampunk or biopunk or paranormal romance, they cover it more thoroughly than a general review magazine that has to cover the waterfront. And for a patron who wants stuff in their love and only their love, a specialized resource is where it’s at.

The slides for the presentation included pictures representing some of the different subgenres, along with breakdowns of the components that make up those niches. A lot of us who read in a genre throw around our own jargon, like steampunk or  cyberpunk or dystopia, and assume that everyone knows what we mean. (Us librarians do that too!) Hunting for images to show not just what cyberpunk looks like, but displaying a formula of what pieces of what genres make it up (Science fiction+ hackers+ artificial intelligence+ post-industrial dystopias+ very hard-boiled detectives) seemed to go over well.

I know the bibliography (webliography?) of recommended bloggers for book reviews I handed out disappeared like snow in July. I could have done a magic trick with that thing.

The kids and teens day on September 14 was absolutely fabulous. Pat Scales, an expert not just on children’s literature but also on intellectual freedom issues (Pat is a member of the National Coalition Against Censorship Council of Advisors) spoke eloquently about ratings systems as censorship tools. The post-lunch panel discussion tackled a broad range of questions, including the debate whether users should find the materials they want in the library or should only be able to find “quality” material. This version of the “give them what they want” conundrum is usually applied to so-called trashy fiction, but is just as applicable to SpongeBob SquarePants. The audience participation on this question was spirited. I think nearly everyone in the audience believed that every patron, no matter what their age, should find both their entertainment and their educational needs met at their local library. If we provide entertainment fiction, then we provide Spongebob.

After the Great Debate, the Talk Tables started. I had a two-table sized group on the endless proliferation of vampire books in teen fiction. “V is for Vampire, W is for Werewolf, Z is for Zombie,” was the title. But I didn’t intend to talk about just the vamps. As one member of the group commented, in every box or cart of teen books, all the books are grey or black, with just a tiny hint of red on the cover. Everything is dark and angsty, whether there are vampires involved or not. It seems as if things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. Even the non-creepy books are dark and gritty. Based on the group discussion, teens may be tired of vampires in particular, but their literature isn’t turning toward sweetness and light any time soon. Just towards a different shade of grey. Or black.

This was a great conference. I really enjoyed the energy. And I truly believe that book blogs are a terrific resource for library collection development, and I would love to have the opportunity to take the show on the road again. Hopefully to a library conference near you!

From Columbia to…Columbia!

Reading Reality is going on the road again. On September 13 and September 14 I will be at the South Carolina Collection Development Conference taking place in Columbia, South Carolina.

The entire day tomorrow is devoted to adult collection development. There will be talk tables and a keynote speech in the morning. I’m the afternoon speaker. My topic: “The Brave New World of Genre Fiction Selection, the Rap Sheet on the Fiction Vixen, or what the Locus are all these book blogs about?” I’m going to be encouraging collection development librarians to use book blogs as sources for not just reviews, but as trend spotters, to help them find what readers are looking for. I’ve got a whole list of my favorites. I’ve also got a whole lot of slides to show, not just the increasing importance of genre, but what some of those genres are. Steampunk is just so much cooler when you have a picture!

On Wednesday I’ll be leading one of the table talks. Wednesday is the children’s and teens CD day. A lot of YA literature these days is genre fiction, particularly of the creepy-crawly variety. And that’s where I come in. I’ll be leading a table talk on the “creature features” of YA fiction, titled “V is for Vampire, W is for Werewolf, Z is for Zombie: the continued trend of the dark, weird and scary in teen literature”. It should be a scream.

The official title of the conference is “Collection Development for South Carolina Libraries”, and it is presented and sponsored by the South Carolina State Library. I was incredibly excited when Kathy Sheppard from the SC State Library emailed me last month, right after I got back from Missouri State Library Summer Institute in Columbia, Missouri. The happy coincidence makes for a good omen. And I’m looking forward to thanking Kathy in person for inviting me.

Hearts and daggers and spaceships

Scanning the fiction shelves of your local public library, there are a lot of books with labels on the spines for romance, mystery and science fiction. There’s at least one standard brand of those labels where the romance label was a heart, the mystery label was a dagger, and the sci-fi label was a spaceship.

This isn’t about the labels. This is about the books.

Back in the Dark Ages (pre-Internet), librarians were the ones who knew when new books were coming out. How did we know? We had some great magazines (yes, magazines) that reviewed books just a few weeks, or maybe even a couple of months, before they came out, so we could order them. Those publications are still familiar names: Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, etc. They still publish reviews. And let’s not forget the venerable New York Times Book Review every Sunday and their best seller list.

But the world around them has changed. Everyone knows when books are coming out. Amazon and Barnes & Noble may have books available for pre-order more than six months ahead of publication. But it’s more than that. Reviews are no longer the domain of a select few. Anyone can review a book and post their review on the net. Not just on Amazon and B&N, but also on Goodreads, Shelfari and LibraryThing.

Back to the hearts and daggers and spaceships. Once upon a time, most fiction bestsellers were “just plain” fiction. Today, most fiction bestsellers are part of one or more genres. They are romance, or mystery, or science-fiction, or fantasy, or one of the new genres like urban fantasy or paranormal. Or one of the tried-and-true variations, like horror or thriller or espionage. But fiction sells better today when it is in an easily defined category. Just like cable television has broken down into a zillion niche channels, so has publishing.

Genre readers have also developed their own niches on the net where they publish news and reviews and author interviews, just like the traditional review magazines that libraries have always relied on do. The difference is that many of the genre sites are doing this out of love, and not necessarily for money. For many, this is as much about the fandom as it is about the literature. But they still make terrific review sources for a lot of material that may not be covered by traditional reviewers, particularly not in vast quantity.

Every public library already knows whether they are going to purchase James Patterson’s next book. Or Nora Roberts’ next, whichever name she writes it under (I’m waiting for New York to Dallas with the proverbial baited breath myself). Librarians just don’t need to see the reviews for certain authors, because it doesn’t matter whether the book is good or bad, it will still be “hot”.

But monitoring a group of genre fiction blogs and websites, even if it is a moving target, can bring in a lot of really great material, including ebooks, for your patrons, and can help separate the wheat from the proverbial dusty chaff. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Fiction Vixen both review romance, and lots of it. This is a great thing, since there is an awful lot of romance published, and nowhere near enough of it gets reviewed anywhere except online, particularly the ebook-only titles. All Things Urban Fantasy, Para Your Normal and Galaxy Express (Science Fiction Romance) cover subgenres that aren’t necessarily even thought of by more traditional reviewing sources.

Locus Magazine and the SciFiGuy both review science fiction and fantasy. The Rap Sheet and Criminal Element cover (or uncover) Mystery. And many of these sites have that wonderful feature, a blog roll. Veritable treasure troves of sites in the same bailiwick.

As both selection resources for collection development and readers’ advisory resources for patron services, these sites are fantastic. They can answer questions like “what is the authors’ preferred reading order for the Liaden series vs. the publication order?” and “If I have patrons who like Sookie Stackhouse but not Anita Blake, what else should I buy?” There’s also the ever popular question of where to go for clues on what to purchase to fill in the ebook selection on OverDrive.  Those are the most popular genres, and most of them are not reviewed. Checking out the purchaser reviews on Amazon, or going to a specialty site like Fiction Vixen may help you decide.

And it’s fun.

It’s always about the story

It’s not that just that I love to read, although that’s true.  I love to get lost in a story.  And then, I’m the person who will tell everyone I know, “you’ve got to read this…” until I read the next one.  The thing is, I don’t care what kind of story I get lost in.

I read genre fiction.  Someone, to whom I am forever grateful, gave me The Lord of the Rings when I was in 4th grade.  I read fantasy, and I read a lot of it.  I love Star Trek.  I watched the end of the Original Series with my dad, when it was on the first time, and I got really hooked when it ran in syndication.  I read space opera.  I get at least a supporting membership in Worldcon so I can vote on the Hugos.

Somewhere sideways from the fantasy, I got into vampires.  And it’s a short step from there into urban fantasy.  Not to mention paranormal romance.  And from urban fantasy, the crossover step into mysteries is actually not that far.  Especially since I was really, really into historical fiction at one point, and historical mysteries are fantastic.  Sometimes so fantastic they end up right back in fantasy.   And a good happy ever after (HEA) romance, can be just the ticket when I’m down, especially if it’s historic, or fantastic, or has just a touch of space opera.

I read everything but the cereal box in the morning.  Actually, I’ll read that if I’m desperate.  It can be better than the newspaper.